By Michael Morton-Evans OAM

You couldn’t miss Busoni wherever he went for, he was sure to be accompanied by his dog, and not just any dog. First it was a huge Labrador retriever called Lesko, and when Lesko died he was succeeded by a behemothian St. Bernard called Giotto. Busoni, the centenary of whose death we mark on July 27th, always thought big. He got it from his father Ferdinando, a handsome but bibulous womaniser who just happened also to be a virtuoso clarinetist.

Although Italian by birth, he was so deeply impressed by German art that he no longer belonged musically to his native country. This was probably largely due to the influence of his half-German mother, Anna Weiss, and the fact that Ferdinando made the boy practice the piano for four sequential hours every day, feeding him copious quantities of Bach.

Ferrucio gave his first public concert at the age of eight, then aged nine he was taken to Vienna where he got an audition with Anton Rubinstein and the following year a concert engagement where we’re told he played a man-sized programme, but also wowed the audience with his brilliant improvisatory ability. In his late teens Busoni embarked on a journey across Europe, captivating audiences with his virtuosic piano performances.

His interpretations of works by Bach, Beethoven, and Liszt were particularly acclaimed, earning him the reputation as one of the greatest pianists of his time.

His piano style was ultra-romantic, and his many youthful compositions were light, but not particularly individual. It wasn’t until he was about 35 that he gradually began to infuse a deeper meaning into his works, and from then on, his work became more and more uniquely individual. It has been remarked that his later compositions were more philosophical than romantic.

One of Busoni’s most significant contributions to music was his advocacy for the integration of new technologies into musical performance and composition. He was an early adopter of the player piano and explored the possibilities of electronic music long before it became mainstream. His interest in the intersection of music and technology foreshadowed developments that would shape the future of music in the 20th and 21st centuries.

As a conductor, Busoni championed the works of contemporary composers, including his own compositions and those of his contemporaries. He believed fervently in the importance of fostering new talent and pushing the boundaries of musical expression. His conducting style was marked by precision, passion, and a deep understanding of the music he conducted. He was also a dedicated teacher, passing on his knowledge and insights to future generations of musicians. Among his students were some of the most prominent composers and pianists of the 20th century, including Kurt Weill and Claudio Arrau. 

The controversial Scottish music critic Cecil Gray said at the time “Busoni was the eternal seeker, looking for the philosopher’s stone that will produce the magnum opus, always thinking that it is within reach, but always just failing to find it.” Maybe a little unfair, given the success of Busoni’s operas, Doctor Faustus and Turandot. Nevertheless, despite his many achievements, Busoni’s life was not without its challenges. He faced constant criticism from traditionalists who were wary of his experimental tendencies, and his outspokenness often led to controversy within the musical community. Yet, he remained steadfast in his commitment to pushing the boundaries of musical expression, forging a path that would inspire generations of composers and performers to come.

During the 1st World War, he lived in Switzerland and when he returned home to Berlin at war’s end, he happily found his home, his library and his art collection intact. But soon afterwards a kidney ailment began to sap his health and he aged rapidly. Postwar inflation ruined him in terms of accessible money, and he didn’t live to complete his masterwork, a monumental operatic treatment of the Faust legend. He died on July 27th, 1924, leaving behind a rich legacy that continues to resonate with musicians and music lovers to this day.